“I think there’s a certain type of arrogance that comes with the listeners here in the U.S. because they’re so used to hearing a certain type of sound that they don’t expand outside of what they’re used to.”
When the word “mogul” in the culture is used, we usually think of people like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Diddy, Drake, Kanye West and others. But if there’s one person who deserves to to mentioned in that category more frequently, it’s Akon.
The Senegalese musician broke out in 2004 with his hit single ‘Locked Up’ and the subsequent debut album Trouble which ended up selling almost 2 million units in the U.S. alone. He had instant success because of his unique delivery and voice. But after his third album, Freedom in 2008, Akon got occupied with side ventures which included signing an important artist like Lady Gaga and being one of the key factors in her breakout success with her debut album The Fame in 2008. Gaga was signed to a joint venture between Akon’s Kon Live imprint, Cherrytree Records and Interscope Records.
This is after Akon had already scored a major win by signing T-Pain, who ended up being one of the most influential artists of this generation because of the way he brought in the auto-tune trend. However, for the past few years, Akon has been busy with a major project: Akon Lighting Africa. The multi-platinum musician studied the business of energy companies and realized that Africa didn’t incorporate solar energy efficiently despite being in a dire need of power in most parts of the continent. Akon quietly created a billion dollar credit line through China and got many African governments involved in the project.
Unlike most moguls, Akon did the unthinkable without much media coverage outside Africa and by hardly talking about it except at an event here or there. “Being the fact that you’re a celebrity and you have connections with so many presidents and doing so many things, they have an agenda as well. When they see that you’re competition or they see that you’re doing enough to disrupt, they kind of create problems,” he says on why he moved under the radar to establish himself in that business.
Akon is now shifting his focus back to music. The hugely popular international star is preparing to release as many as three albums this month. First up is a Latin album named El Negreeto which will kickstart the run for him, dropping October 4th through his Ke Lo Ke label. The second album Akonda, which is also the name of his Afrobeats label, drops October 18 while Konnect, an album full of R&B and Hip-Hop hits, will arrive a week later on October 25. Then in December, we will get The Konnection which will feature tons of guest artists. All of this will be pushed through his newly established Akonik Music Group with former Motown CEO, Kedar Massenburg.
We spoke to Akon about being back in the music environment, his solar energy business, why he’s so big internationally, the issue with American music fans, his Eminem studio story that went viral and more. He also revealed some of the upcoming collaborations on his The Konnection album (Nicki Minaj, Ty Dolla Sign, Pitbull) and a “top secret” project he has in the works.
HHNM: Hey Akon. Thanks for chatting with me today. You know, this is like, one interview that I’ve been chasing for a very long time.
Yeah. I found an email the other day where I sent a request to your team back in like 2011. Crazy.
Wow! (laughs) Nah, that’s wonderful. I’m glad we were able to finally make it work.
Absolutely. So you haven’t released a studio album in a decade. How does it feel to be back in that space again?
It feels good, man. You know, for a long time I was working in Africa doing a lot of my philanthropy work and focused on my energy company and things like that. But to be back in the space doing music again, that is always the passion so now I’m back in it and you know, the legacy, I felt like I’ve set up the blueprint to start building legacy so now I can get back to the music that I love, you know?
Right. You’re releasing four albums in a matter of a few months and a lot of fans are surprised but I remember you were trying to drop like four or five albums back in 2015 as well, titled Stadium. And I remember you dropped like, a few singles then you took a break again, then another single. We were covering all of that. Why did you decide to stick with that plan this time around?
Oh you remember that. Well because that was always my plan and I always believed in it. The only thing is at the time, I was going through a lot so that’s why songs would sporadically come out, some would leak, the single would be released and it was never no real organisation or marketing plans around these records because of the issues I was dealing with. My dream was always to put out multiple albums under multiple different genres because I always felt like I had a fanbase that was very diverse, you know? Not all my fans listen to Hip-Hop or not all of them listen to R&B or not all of them listen to Latin music. So I wanted to make an album for every, you know, scope of genre that I’ve met my fans through and I felt like this was the best way where I can satisfy all the fans at one time. But the thing is, the platforms at that time just wasn’t available and around that time, radio was the key go-to for new music and the key way to market and promote it. But now, since the technical age has grown a lot and matured, now it’s direct and on demand, so the audience now can create their own playlist and they can choose what they wanna listen to and when. So this was the perfect time to be able to do it. And then on the political side, I was able to get myself released from all my contracts and start my own label so it means it’s now easier to be able to do what I wanted to do musically.
Oh I remember those leaks as well, crazy leaks. I think a couple of German sites used to really leak a lot of your songs, some would be demos and references.
Yeah, a lot of leakers, man. They leaked over 150 songs.
I know, I probably have like 50-70 of those (laughs).
(Laughs) I need some of those man. So that also, you know, kind of stopped a lot of the releases and stuff like that because a lot of songs that were supposed to be released were already out by leaking and them things so it stalled a lot of the releases.
So I really like your single ‘Benjamin’, in fact it’s one of my favorite songs right now, it’s so good. That hook structure you have on it.
Oh, thank you.
What was the inspiration behind that song?
Yeah, well, you know, with ‘Benjamin’ it was more so today’s state of mind of the average relationship and it’s funny because the generation today, the way that they view their significant other, you know, he has to be someone that has money. And it kinda just showcased loyalty for money on the other hand, like the way the woman’s looking at it from her standpoint, like Benjamin Franklin is the only person that she really counts on because he’s the only one that can take away all the problems, pay all the bills and put her in the position of limelight. So that’s kinda like a metaphor of how I did it, pretty much, just a state of mind from an independent woman’s standpoint.
Got it. You dropped a few singles from Akonda, Konnect and El Negreeto but I don’t think we’ve heard any music from your collab project, right, The Konnection? What collaborations can we look forward to on that album?
So that one, I’m pretty much putting all the who’s whos on that record. A lot of previous albums before that, minus the Latin album, have no features on it. The first one, The Konnect’s gonna be all me on my own, just to give the audience the Akon experience. And then when I come with The Konnection, that one has all the features on it. You know, you have Nicki Minaj, Ty Dolla Sign, Pitbull, a lot of names that I’m gonna actually add on as we’re moving forward. I just don’t wanna give too much before we drop the Konnect album, I wanna focus on that for now.
Can’t wait. You’re such a big star internationally still. I remember back in 2006 I was visiting Thailand on vacation and I was trying to cop some t-shirts and you know, the most common ones that I found in stores were you, 50 Cent and Linkin Park. It’s crazy. Your shirts were in every flee market, every store. Why do you think you’re so popular outside America?
You know what, because I always looked from a global standpoint and I always you know, envisioned myself as a global ambassador, so everything I do I always try to think globally when I do it, especially on an audience level, because we go through so much internationally that domestically we don’t know too much about it. Because a lot of music don’t reach the United States, but I always try to make music that kind of collaborates with the day-to-day issues that people are dealing with internationally. Also, being African as well, I get a lot of support from Africans around the world too and a lot of those guys work in flee markets (laughs) you know? So you know, between Africa and India, those two markets, man, they love me to death and I always do as much as I can for those two markets because they supported me the heaviest.
My other question is actually related to what you said. A lot of the American music fans usually don’t have an idea of what’s happening outside the U.S. What do you think is the reason behind that?
Well I think there’s a certain type of arrogance that comes with the listeners here in the U.S. because they’re so used to hearing a certain type of sound that they don’t expand outside of what they’re used to. You have to have a really broad mind and perspective to want to hear something outside of the genre that you come from and I think in America they’ve set the standard for what music should sound like so they only focus on American music so much. But if you’re a person that isn’t from America or you travel and you’re actually exposed to different types of music then you become more of a broader music lover. And with me, I travel a lot, so I listen to different music all over the place but in America, even if you listen to the radio, they don’t play too much music that’s not American. If it’s not American, you don’t hear it outside, you know? So that’s why a lot of American listeners aren’t really familiar with a lot of songs outside of America, especially if it’s not English speaking.
Absolutely true. You’ve done a lot of great work with your solar energy companies, congratulations on that. But I noticed that you often move very quietly on that front unlike most moguls that we see in the Hip-Hop space that really like to talk about it, advertise it, brag about it. Any particular reason you move so quietly with that?
Thank you very much. Yeah, mainly because I want to be able to accomplish as much as I possibly can because one thing about my energy company, we’re doing so well that if the major energy companies know what I’m doing, I would start getting a lot of feedback and resistance, you know? Being the fact that you’re a celebrity and you have connections with so many presidents and doing so many things, they have an agenda as well. When they see that you’re competition or they see that you’re doing enough to disrupt, they kind of create problems. It wasn’t really about the money for me, it was about providing energy to people who never had it. And a lot of the times, if the major energy companies could have done it, they would have done it by now but their only focus is the profit so they feel if the people can’t provide or pay for it, they have no reason to put the electricity there. When I think it’s the other way around. If you provide electricity, people will find a way to pay for it, you know what I’m saying? They just have to have it available for them. So my goal was just to make sure that they had it available there to them.
Amazing. Back to music, you brought to the world, literally two of the most influential artists of our generation, T-Pain and Lady Gaga. Do you have your eyes on someone new that you want to help break through these days?
Yeah it’s a lot of new artists that we’ll definitely be bringing in. One of them that I’m really excited about, his name is June Freedom, he’s an African kid from Cape Verde that I’m really, really excited about and then the second one is also African, he’s from Nigeria, his name is Olamide. Olamide is one of my artists that we’re really gonna be pushing very hard moving forward. But more than anything I’m really excited about my kids. You know my kids, they all are artists themselves and I got a label that I created just for them which they will all be dropping first on beginning of next year. As soon as you hear them you’re gonna know they’re my kids, they’re mini versions of me but all amazing, they’re like so much better than I am, so I’m super excited.
The Eminem story that you told in the Ebro interview went viral, it was hilarious and fascinating. Did Em call you about it and say ‘yo, what are you doing speaking about my business?’
(Laughs) Nah, nah, nah, Em is an amazing guy, man. He’s super, super amazing. And I love him though because he’s so professional, you know? He taught me that, like, he treats this business like a real job because not only do you get more done but it’s also more effective, you know what I’m saying?
Absolutely. One last question. Your Bollywood Hindi song with Vishal and Shekhar, ‘Chammak Chhalo’ was a big hit. The way you executed that, it was amazing. Can we expect more Indian collaborations?
Oh man, you know everything (laughs). Yes, I am. Apart from the four projects that we spoke about, there’s a top secret project I’m doing which I’m planning to drop around Spring. I will reveal more about it in due time. You’re gonna love it, trust me.